Tim Macer
reports back from the ASC Challenge of the Internet conference, a practical look at the future
Net Development
Don’t judge the internet for what it isn’t: recognise it for what it is and be ready for it to transform your working practices. That was the consistent message at ‘The Challenge of the Internet’, ASC’s international conference on survey research methods at Chesham in May, the culmination of three linked internet-related conferences over the last 12 months.
Ray Poynter’s (Millward Brown Intelliquest) lucid and entertaining guide to best practice in online research predicted that 2003 and 2005 would be the start of "the big change" when 50% of consumer research will be conducted on the internet. To be ready, many accepted research practices will need revision, making it time "to confront some long neglected truths". These include greater clarity over instructions and eliminating errors in questionnaires, more respondent-friendly designs and shorter interview lengths, and "treating the respondent with greater respect".
Sampling may be less of an issue in the future as the validity of probability samples is eroded by falling response rates. This theme was expanded in a keynote from Mick Couper, survey methodology professor at the University of Michigan, who gave a balanced and highly practical account of the do’s and don’ts in online research. He believes that weighting can solve problems inherent in trying to apply random sampling to the internet. The industry must be vigilant for extravagant claims over sample size, citing this statement from National Geographic’s website "We received more than 50,000 responses — twice the minimum required for scientific validity". Howls of protest had it removed.
Couper has done a lot of interesting research into the effect of design, layout and appearance of web questionnaires with astonishing results. He proved the need for anyone doing online research to be very aware of modal bias introduced simply through careless or inappropriate presentation of questions and stimulus materials online.
Couper sees a great threat to MR in the insidious growth of poorly constructed, self-selecting DIY surveys on the internet. "Among policy makers and lay people, few can distinguish good surveys from bad. Without such knowledge, all data are valued equally... size becomes the measure of quality and price the only measure of value. A dangerous state of affairs indeed."
The realities of an industry where technology is lowering the bar to entry also featured heavily at SPSS MR's SumIT01 conference at Estoril, Portugal, at the end of May. Keynote speaker Simon Chadwick, CEO of United Information Group, warned that MR faced a future in which it is increasingly marginalized by data integrators, CRM advisors and DIY research on the net unless it "reintegrates itself by saying we are the people that make most sense to use - reinserting the professionalism in making sense of customers. We have to step up a number of notches."

survey data capture
Merlinco and E-Tabs, two companies taking market research software onto the internet
Chadwick sees the future lying in "good data outcome", integrating different data sources and embracing data mining and CRM, which MR is currently ignoring at its peril.
Criticising the industry’s lack of spend on R&D, which he claims must increase to at least 5%, he challenged researchers to become technologically oriented. "The working style is going to have to change: more empowered individuals, less hierarchical."

'Poorly constructed, self-selecting DIY surveys on the net are a threat to MR

Fundamental to this shift, Chadwick claims, is open architectures in the software used in MR. In this respect, SPSS MR at last seems to be delivering the goods. For just about everyone at the conference, the big question was what, if anything, had SPSS got to show for two years of rewriting its entire product range after its ‘road to Damascus’ conversion to open architecture.
SPSS MR Director Richard Kottler unveiled two new Dimensions products: MRTables, for desktop tabulation and MRInterview, to deploy web survey. Kottler also announced that MRInterview will mutate gradually into a full-blown CATI system. Web-enabled versions of all its products are planned, and a basic web-enabled survey design tool was also demonstrated which SPSS MR is offering free through its new ASP service.
A disappointing consequence of the sheer scale of the rewrite is that, for some time to come, serious set-up work remains in the old, hard to learn DP packages. But Dimensions is a bold start, and there was little criticism among SPSS MR’s users as they began to see just how revolutionary SPSS MR’s new Dimension architecture is. Its open database-driven data model and massive developers’ library, open not just to SPSS MR users but to third parties wishing to licence it, gives everyone the ability not just to customise the look and feel of the products but to completely change the way they work, add new features and adapt them beyond recognition. New alliances are being forged and, in a surprise revelation, it was announced that rival ASP Market Tools is now adopting the SPSS data model.

Developing better ways to work on tables or pre-analysed research data was the recurring theme at Merlinco's tenth annual conference, at which the first products to use the new TabsML open standard were announced. This new table interchange standard, developed by OpenSurvey and based on XML, the popular, web-based way of defining complex rule-based systems, will allow complete or part-processed tables produced in one program to be read by other packages. The promise is also that tables can be merged from different sources and time periods without needing to reprocess everything. As well as Merlinco announcing its products will be made TabsML-ready, E-Tabs also announced forthcoming TabsML support in its table browsing and archiving products.
Mike Trotman of DataTree unveiled his new TeraTree report automation tool, another TabsML product. TeraTree acts as a plug-in to a range of existing tabulation packages and can extract figures from tables in a systematic way, allowing them to be merged, manipulated, customised and reprocessed, then output in a variety of useful formats. It should appeal to anyone trying to integrate data from different sources or handle continuous data in a less clumsy way.
Merlinco also demonstrated its revamped web interviewing module for MerlinPlus. Developed in partnership with kiosk interviewing specialists Data-Sphere, the program uses Macromedia Flash to conduct visually rich surveys over the web. Meanwhile, Merlinco announced that the CATI and end-to-end package Converso has been sold to French telephony developer Com6. Merlinco is continuing to sell and support Converso in the UK and Eire.
Proceedings from the ASC Challenge of the Internet Conference is available on CD ROM or as a bound volume. SumIT presentations are published on the SPSS MR website.


Tim Macer writes as an independent specialist in software for market research. His website is at www.meaning.uk.com

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, July 2001, Issue 422.

© Copyright Tim Macer/Market Research Society 2001. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.